PHNOM PENH — While thousands of events are canceled worldwide and countries go into lockdowns, Cambodia and China hold their annual Golden Dragon military exercise in what observers describe as a move to demonstrate close ties with China.
Some 260 troops of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and about 2,700 hosting forces of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) participate in the drills in Chum Kiri district in Kampot province, the Cambodian Defense Ministry said during a press briefing in March. The two countries kicked off their live-fire exercise on March 15, with the closing ceremony scheduled for March 30.
Chinese authorities say the number of new coronavirus cases in China has been brought to nearly a complete halt at the end of March, and Beijing this past week sent medical equipment alongside seven medical experts and four military medical specialists to support the fight against the coronavirus in Cambodia.
As of March 28, Cambodia officially recorded 103 cases. Until the beginning of March, only one case had been recorded.
Political commentator Meas Nee of Cambodia said the drill and other gestures by the Cambodian government indicated an “unusual” relationship between the two countries on both political and military fronts.
“The defiant decision to push ahead with the drill amid a global pandemic seems to be very telling about a special notion that both countries have: a strong backstage-relationship that is larger than what we perceive as a normal diplomatic tie,” he told VOA Khmer.
This is not the first time Prime Minister Hun Sen demonstrated closeness with his political and economic partner. At the beginning of February, the premier reiterated Cambodia’s friendship with China by visiting Beijing. He also ordered not to evacuate Cambodian students and residents from the initial epicenter of the disease, Wuhan, to “stay [with China] in both peaceful and difficult time.”
Those gestures were welcomed by Wang Wentian, Chinese Ambassador to Cambodia, who said in an embassy’s press briefing in February: “Strong winds test the strength of the grass; misfortune tests the sincerity of friendship.”
Nee noted that the current military exercises could put the health of soldiers at risk, although officials claim that participants received proper health checks in advance and medical care on site.
The U.S. on Friday canceled its planned military exercise Balikatan with the Philippines army scheduled for May, citing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. The case count rose in the Philippines to more than 700 by Friday, with the country’s military chief being among those diagnosed with the virus.
“Biggest [Drill] in history”
Thong Solimo, spokesperson for RCAF, dismissed concerns and said that the exercise had been smooth and subject to high medical precautionary measures.
He said the drill would be the “biggest in [Cambodian] history”.
The exercise involved the uses of heavy artillery, tanks, helicopters, tactics to counter chemical weapons, including at least one “military-grade surveillance drone,” he said, declining to give details on the drone and whether this was linked to a drone that crash-landed in Koh Kong province in January.
“This drill has become the symbol of Sino-Cambodian friendship ties,” Solimo told VOA Khmer. “The benefits we get from the drill would be the exchange of techniques and experience in the work against terrorism.”
This is the fourth time that Beijing and Phnom Penh have held the annual Golden Dragon exercise since late 2016. In early 2017, Cambodia canceled its annual military exercises with both the U.S. and Australia.
Cambodia, however, remains open to military drills with other countries as long as it fits with three conditions, Solimo said, including whether the theme of drill coincides with its defense priorities, the arrangement of drill sites and equipment, and the expense of the drill.
Solimo declined to comment on the costs of the current drill.
Like in previous years, the Golden Dragon exercise focuses on counter-terrorism work. While China was ranked 42nd in the 2019 Global Terrorism Index, Cambodia was placed 138th with no recorded threat of terrorism, according to Sydney-based Institute of Economics and Peace.
Asked why terrorism was made a priority considering the low threat, Solimo said the exercises were held pre-emptively. “We do not face significant challenges imposed by terrorism for now in Cambodia. But it does not mean we wait until it happens that we get ready,” he said.
But the matter of how “terrorism” was defined could give rise to concern, Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia, Phil Robertson, said.
Robertson said the notion of “counter-terrorism” could serve as an excuse for both countries.
“Any designation about content, such as ‘terrorism,’ has likely been superseded in the eyes of the governments by the symbolic nature of just ensuring the exercise goes on as usual,” he said in an email.
“But the reality is with both governments, and particularly China, anti-terror is a convenient excuse to imprison enemies. Not sure we really want Beijing teaching that to Phnom Penh.”
The Chinese government has cited terror threats by “religious extremists” to justify placing more than one million members of the ethnic Uighur minority in internment camps, critics said.
In Cambodia, the government blocked attempts by exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return last November by categorizing him and his supporters as “terrorists.”
“Sadly, everything like this exercise that gives a boost to technical and political cooperation between the Chinese and Cambodian militaries has the potential to intensify rights violations against the Cambodian people, and this high-profile military exercise is no exception,” Robertson said of the drill.
More than symbolic messages seem to be at play for Hun Sen’s China approach. Earlier in the year after the outbreak of the virus, Hun Sen said that shutting borders to China meant “killing the national economy” of Cambodia.
The reliance on China as a trading partner became evident when a raw material shortage led to the suspensions of some 50 garment factories and some 20,000 workers in mid-March.
The drill and the events surrounding the fight against the virus mark a “new stage” in the relations between Beijing and Phnom Penh, said Chheang Vannarith, President of the Phnom Penh-based think-tank Asian Vision Institute.
“This reflects an in-depth relationship that covers not only the mutual confidence but also the real practicality,” Vannarith said. “The relationship will get even closer [and] the Chinese presence and influences in Cambodia will see an increase.”
He said that once the coronavirus pandemic is over, China would be seeking a more active global leadership, projecting its model of political and economic path that many countries like Cambodia may consider, he added.
The U.S. government has warned of a possible future Chinese military presence in Cambodia as the ties grow stronger and Cambodia is increasingly reliant on China. But both China and Cambodia have dismissed the concerns.
In recent years, Cambodia took many paralleled stances with China on various global agendas including the idea of not internationalizing the South China Sea conflicts, the Sino-American trade war, and the issues involves one-China principle with Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang.
But Cambodia’s ties with China could be of concern to its Western partners, who would see it as an imbalance in Cambodia’s foreign policies, political commentator Nee said.